Parrish Curator Brings Global Outlook to East End

A desire to bring together voices from different disciplines
Corinne Erni’s programs at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill reflect her global outlook and interdisciplinary approach to subjects ranging from climate change to urban life. Carrie Ann Salvi

Corinne Erni’s first visit to the East End was in 2016, when she traveled from New York City to Water Mill to interview for the position of curator of special projects at the Parrish Art Museum. 

“I never planned to leave New York,” she said. “But as soon as I saw the museum and became acquainted with its collection and exhibitions, I got very excited. And the area is beautiful beyond belief.”

Since joining the staff in September 2016, Ms. Erni, despite being a newcomer, has lost no time in putting her imprint on the museum’s programming. Whether implementing a weekend symposium on water and climate change or launching “Inter-Sections,” an ongoing lecture series focused on architecture, she is driven by a desire to bring together voices from different disciplines “to create cohesive, future-oriented narratives with art as the connecting membrane.”

“(Re)Sources: Symposium on Water and Climate Change,” held last September, reflected Ms. Erni’s tendency to launch “theme-based rather than media-based” initiatives. The weekend began with a panel discussion titled “Water: A (Re)Source of Inspiration,” which featured Alexis Rockman, whose field drawings and dystopian paintings engage environmental issues, Edwina von Gal, a landscape designer dedicated to sustainable, toxin-free landscaping, and Shane Weeks, a member of the Shinnecock Nation, multidisciplinary artist, and cultural consultant who travels up and down the East Coast to study the history and culture of other native peoples.

The event also featured a performance of “The Watery Owl of Minerva” by Optipus, a Brooklyn  collective and orchestra. Held on the museum’s terrace, the event included hand-painted slides, Super 8 and 16-millimeter films, overhead projections, digital video, and original music and sound.

“The performance was all about water and nature,” said Ms. Erni, “and it was a sort of artistic approach to climate change and how we react to these images. I like to bring these things together, not just talk about a subject but also experience it through our senses.” She plans to hold a weekend program on climate change every year.

Upcoming programs reflect her global outlook and her interest in collaborating with other institutions. This year’s Platform series, which invites artists to create interdisciplinary works that utilize the entire museum and its grounds, will feature Barthélémy Toguo, an African artist from Cameroon.

“The first thing I thought when I came out here is there has to be an opportunity for artists to spend time here, because it’s so unique and so beautiful. We don’t have that possibility on our premises, but we started talking to the Watermill Center, and they proposed a collaboration.” 

Mr. Toguo, whose multidisciplinary work deals with issues of migration, colonialism, race, and the relationship between the global north and south, will spend June at the Watermill Center, where he will develop his project for the Parrish. Platform will open in August and continue through mid-October. 

This summer’s Parrish Road Show, for which artists create off-site installations, will feature two emerging artists, Jeremy Dennis of the Shinnecock Nation and Esly Escobar from Westhampton. 

Mr. Dennis will install works from his “Stories” series at the John Little Barn at Duck Creek Farm in Springs, which, in addition to its place in the artistic history of the East End, is also near important Shinnecock sites, among them the Springy Banks Powwow Grounds and the Soak Hides Dreen. “Stories” will open on Aug. 11.

At Quail Hill Farm in Amagansett, Mr. Escobar will create “Playground,” a site-specific installation including an abstract figure made of balls used in a variety of sports that reflect the wide range of social strata on the East End — tennis, soccer, golf, and basketball. “Playground” will open on Aug. 18.

Born and raised in a small town in Switzerland, Ms. Erni attended the School of Fashion and Design in Milan and worked as a designer in Switzerland, Italy, and New York City, where she moved in the late 1980s. She took a job at the United Nations in 1990 in order to get a work visa, but her future was shaped not in Midtown but downtown, where she lived on Second Street at Avenue B.

“It was New York in the late 1980s, the heyday of the East Village, where art aficionados and artists of all disciplines would hang out together and professional lines got blurred. Many of my friends were visual artists, dancers, and theater directors, and I went to see every possible exhibition and performance. I gradually realized I wanted to be in the arts and culture full time.”

In 1996 she enrolled in the New York University journalism school’s graduate program in cultural reporting and criticism, which had been inaugurated a year before by Ellen Willis, the cultural critic and Village Voice writer. “It changed the course of my life,” Ms. Erni said.

What followed was a succession of jobs and projects that both reflected and continued to develop her global outlook and commitment to “creating an international network of cultural workers and artists who deal with urban issues.” 

While working at the Swiss consulate as deputy cultural attaché, she organized and promoted Swiss Peaks, a festival featuring more than 100 cultural events at 35 venues, among them Cooper Union, Lincoln Center, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

After leaving the consulate, she organized a pan-European performing arts festival in 2006, and, in 2009, a yearlong festival of exhibitions, performances, and screenings of work by contemporary Hungarian artists at such venues as the Museum of Modern Art, the National Gallery of Art, the Jewish Museum, and the Library of Congress. 

After seven years as an independent curator and arts producer, she was hired by the New Museum in New York City, where she worked with the director, Lisa Phillips, and the chief curator, Richard Flood, to create Ideas City, a biennial arts festival focused on how art and culture can change urban spaces and urban life. 

In addition to biennial three-day festivals in New York, Ideas City held global conferences in Istanbul in 2012 and Sao Paulo in 2013. “The Istanbul festival happened just before the Taksim Square uprising, and you could really feel the dissatisfaction of the young creative people there. In Sao Paulo, too, there were lots of demonstrations that started over the bus fare increases.”

“I invited people from Istanbul to come to Sao Paolo and to compare and discuss what their issues were. There were similarities but obviously also huge cultural differences. We brought back some people to the New York conference, including artists to do projects there.”

The move to Water Mill has done nothing to rein in her global outlook. “The Parrish is such an interesting museum because it’s relevant locally and regionally but also internationally. I’m hoping to build on that and flesh that out.”